When the Southern Illinois men’s basketball team returned to Valparaiso for the first time in 37 years last month, the Salukis had a special fan waiting for them.
Moments before the game, Valparaiso director of athletics Mark LaBarbera stepped to center court with a plaque and recognized a giant in the athletics, business and nature conservation community of Northwest Indiana.
As Dick Blythe made his way to center court alongside his family, he was greeted with cheers from both the Region faithful as well as the Southern Illinois traveling party. Both sides have undoubtedly felt the reach of Blythe’s accomplishments since he graduated from Hammond High School in 1952 and Southern Illinois in 1956.
“It was a really nice moment,” Blythe said. “I wanted to meet the (Southern Illinois) players and tell them about how we had it. It was 1952.”
A conversation with Blythe is as wide-ranging and exciting as his career path. While sports have been a large part of his life, from the time he started playing basketball under Bob King at Hammond to the 40 years he spent working for the family-owned Blythe’s Sports Shop and everything in between, it almost didn’t turn out that way.
“I didn’t even make the seventh grade basketball team,” Blythe said. “My mother (Ethel) told me that year that I had to get a job, so I got a paper route and had to leave practices early, so I didn’t make it. I made the team the next year, but it was because the coach went to church with us. I didn’t play much at all.”
Blythe had a breakthrough the summer before his freshman year of high school when he grew inches almost overnight. The sudden growth spurt was accompanied by a strong work ethic that he refined while working on his uncle’s farm in Carbondale, a job that would eventually change his life.
“My uncle didn’t have any kids and they were taking care of my grandmother, so they invited me to stay for a summer and work,” Blythe said. “It was good for me. I helped bale hay. I did that for six summers. I was lucky to have three sets of parents it felt like.”
Blythe became a valued member of King’s Hammond teams leading up to his senior season in 1951-52 when the Wildcats drew top-ranked E.C. Washington in the first round of sectional play. With Blythe and his teammates fretting over the matchup, King quickly put an end to the sulking from his downtrodden players.
“King burst in the room and said, ‘This is what I wanted! This is what I wanted,’” Blythe said. “They were ranked first or second in the state, but he was happy because we got all week to prepare for them. I did a lot of screening that game. They’d beaten us by 19 points earlier in the year, but we beat them that night, and that started the controversy of East Chicago and Hammond. We needed a police escort out of the game that night.”
Tensions continued to escalate between the two schools until several years later when the Sportsmanship Banquet was founded. Blythe has been a member of the organizing committee for years, one of just many honors that he has to his name throughout his 84 years. One of the more recent honors came in 2006 when Blythe was named a Distinguished Alum by Southern Illinois, a school that he attended to by chance.
“I went down to see my uncle in the fall (after I graduated high school) and he used to ride horses with the athletic director of Southern Illinois,” Blythe said. “My uncle calls me over and he asks about me. I tell him that we went to the Sweet 16 in basketball and that I like the hurdles and high jumping. He takes me right over to the school and I meet with the coaches. They signed me up immediately. It turned out pretty good for me, I think I only had to pay $15 a quarter.”
Blythe got his first real action early in his sophomore year at Northern Illinois when he was a last-second addition to the travel roster. After getting pummeled inside by a Northern post player, coach Lynn Holder called on Blythe to take a shot.
“He was scoring on everyone, so coach gives me a chance and I go in there and I stop him,” Blythe said. “On the last play, I blocked a shot of his out of bounds and it sends the game to overtime. We win in overtime and coach starts me the rest of the year. I guarded the best offensive forward for the rest of the year.”
Blythe went on to earn co-MVP honors for the Salukis in the 1955-56 season and then was named the Most Valuable Track athlete in the spring as he competed in hurdles, high jumps and the mile relay.
“I had a pretty good year,” Blythe said with a lift in his voice.
While Blythe was racking up accolades in Carbondale, his parents, Lester and Ethel, were into their fourth year of running Blythe’s Sports Shop in Griffith. Blythe earned a business degree at Southern Illinois and was well suited to eventually take over the family business, a role he held for 40 years until he retired in 1996, choosing to watch his three sons, Rodger, Ryan and Mike, take up in his place.
“My dad started the business in 1952 and he used to tell me that pennies make dollars,” Blythe said. “That was one of his sayings. He also told us to make sure you don’t alienate the young boys, because they won’t come back as adults. We would spend a lot of time with the kids, we knew all the kids from Griffith.”
Blythe’s Sports Shop eventually expanded into Valparaiso and it’s rare to see a coach in the area that has not interacted with the area business in some way or another. From uniforms to warmups to gear and everything in between, Blythe’s has thrived for three generations, while allowing Blythe himself to keep up with some of his other passions, which include hunting, fishing and nature conservation.
Blythe was the chairman for the Indiana Grand Kankakee Marsh Restoration Project beginning for nearly 20 years beginning in 1992. Blythe’s work in nature conservation has been honored by various organizations, including being named to the Outdoor Life 25 in 2007 as well as being named “Sagamore of the Wabash” by the state of Indiana in 1999, the highest honor available to its citizens.
Blythe’s Sports Shop celebrated its 65th anniversary last summer, the first in which it wasn’t owned by the Blythe family. Blythe’s sons sold the family business to Jeff Neeley, but still are very involved in the operations. Neeley has adopted the Blythe-style of managing, always making sure the customer feels welcomed, a trait that Blythe himself picked up from his father and passed down to his sons.
“My sons turned into great businessmen,” Blythe said. “I think I get a little credit for that.”